ROLI SEABOARD BLOCK

Published On April 12, 2018 | Reviews

It’s cute and squishy, and it might just take over the world.

Review: Mark Davie

The Seaboard block is Roli in a nutshell. MIDI Polyphonic Expression… check. Squishy surface… check. Democratising a previously elite technology… absolutely.

Roli has taken a Tesla-esque approach to its Seaboard rollout. Starting at the top, with an end game to reach the mass market. The Grand was expensive and made for ‘real’ keyboardists looking to take a chance on MPE, the Rise series was more affordable and suited to people more likely to play a chord on a synth than a sonata on a piano. Seaboard Block is cheap enough, small enough and fun enough for anyone.

SIZE MATTERS

At almost half the width of Roli’s previous Seaboard, Rise 25, the Block version gets straight to the point. The entire purpose of the Seaboard is to place the five core dimensions of MPE at your fingertips. Seaboard block does that as economically as possible.

As well as Roli’s squishy keys with 5D expression, the Seaboard block has room to slide up and down the two-octave span above and below the keys. It also has arrows at each end to nudge the keys up or down octaves, in a six octave range.

While the Rise has extra sliders and an X/Y pad for limiting or expanding the range of motion on the fly, you can expand your Seaboard block with a Lightpad block to perform those functions, if you absolutely require them.

The Seaboard block magnetically snaps into the Blocks ecosystem via built-in DNA connectors. You can hook up Lightpad blocks, control blocks, or more Seaboard blocks to create a ‘seamless’ multi-octave keyboard.

I didn’t have two Seaboard blocks to snap together, so I can’t say exactly how seamlessly they connect, but the dimensions seem to be spot on for the same gap to occur between octaves. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t expect to be able to slide my finger seamlessly between two units without a break in the note.

At just one and a half times the depth of a Lightpad block, I didn’t feel like it was any harder/easier to play the Block version versus the slightly bigger Rise and Grand keys. It’s still tough for a newbie, and gratifyingly expressive to the familiar.

IT’S MAKING NOISE

Roli’s Noise app continues to improve. It’s now available on Google Pixel as well as iOS devices. The number of packs continues to expand, as does the in-app purchase catalogue. With Pharrell Williams recently coming onboard as Roli’s Chief Creative Officer, you can download free sample packs for N.E.R.D.’s single Lemon. On the other end, Audio Modelling have an amazing SWAM engine, acoustically-modelled string section with violin, viola, cello and double bass for just US$14.99.

Last time I reviewed a Blocks device, I lamented Ableton’s lack of support for MPE. Not a whole lot has changed on Ableton’s side, it still requires a bit of a workaround and arming 16 tracks at once for maximum polyphony. Although Live 10 brings with it the ability to edit multiple MIDI clips at once, allowing you to potentially edit your Seaboard masterpieces. It’s limited to eight MIDI clips at a time. So you can either choose to either edit the two parts separately or limit the polyphony to eight. We’ll get there eventually Ableton… right?

While Ableton’s a bit slow to the MPE party, Roli is doing its darnedest to put polyphonic expression in everyone’s hands, even full-time creators.

Noise is fully Ableton Link-compatible. It’s super easy to setup, and you can play along with any Ableton project and other Link-enabled apps and devices. Once you’ve laid down all your extra expressive parts inside Noise, you can now export an Ableton project, and save it to your phone or a cloud service. It only took a couple of minutes to save 16 four-bar audio loops. Then I could open them in my computer and continue on, with tempo intact and all the tracks neatly named and laid out in Session view.

It’s a much simpler way of integrating the Seaboard Block into your Ableton workflow. Of course, if you’re on Bitwig, Logic, Cubase, Reaper, or even Garageband, just plug it in and jam away on Roli’s Equator or any of the built-in or third-party MPE compatible plug-ins.

Roli is truly on a roll. And yet again, I can’t help but recommend Blocks as a way of getting in touch with MPE. The Seaboard Block is absolutely brilliant.  

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